To conclude my “Forays into Fairyland” themed month, I will be reviewing an exciting new bestseller by Holly Black.
When I saw that there was a new fairy-themed book out by Holly Black, beloved author of the Modern Faerie Tales series that I adored as a wee teen, I nearly jumped up and down. I don’t follow Black on Twitter, so I had no idea that she was cooking up another faerie series. I brought the book home a few days later, practically vibrating with excitement.
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black, follows the story of Jude, a seventeen-year old human girl living with her two sisters in the land of Faerie. She was seven when she witnessed the murder of her parents by a Redcap, who kidnapped Jude and her sisters to the land of the fae and then raised them—it’s a very complicated family dynamic. Jude and her twin sister Taryn, both human, long to live in the land of Faery and be like the fae, while their older sister, Vivi, who is born a faery, wants to live among mortals.
Jude’s solution is to try to become a knight of the High Court of Faerie, while Taryn’s solution is to find a suitable husband. The problem is that Jude and Taryn are scorned at best by the fae, and are bullied by the other faeries who accompany them for schooling, especially Cardan, the prince who is last in line for the throne. There’s also the minor issue that Jude’s adoptive father, Madoc, has on numerous occasions expressed his disproval of Jude pursuing knighthood, despite her superior combat skills.
Jude tells herself that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to live among the fae without fear, and she finds out just how much this aspiration of hers costs amidst political upheaval, bloodshed, and betrayal.
While reading, I noticed that my reading preferences have shifted a little bit since I first read Holly Black’s work. I haven’t read any of Black’s books since I was in high school, so my memory of loving her books so much created a very high expectation that this book didn’t quite live up to. That’s not to say the book isn’t fantastic, and that I didn’t enjoy reading it! I think my tastes have just matured a little, and so I want a little more oomph to the prose I’m reading to get sucked in.
Black still does a great job of creating the world of Faerie: the imagery feels dark, thorny, beautiful, dangerous. We see the fae of neighboring courts, and begin to peel back the many layers of a dangerous political landscape as the story begins to heat up. The beginning is a little bit slow as we are introduced to the world Jude and her family inhabits, but it's necessary to set the stage and understand what Jude’s life has been up to this point.
Jude is a delightful protagonist who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s courageous, intelligent, and she’s not afraid to go to dark places, which I love. We need more female protagonists who defy expectations, who can be morally grey, who become the monsters under the bed because they’re sick of being afraid. Her character arc is so very satisfying, and I can’t wait to see how much farther she goes in the next books of this series.
There are some great themes in this story that really sing as the plot deepens. From the opening of the story to its close, Black explores how broken family dynamics can function (or dysfunction), and what it means to love someone after they’ve committed unforgivable acts. And, if you enjoy a story with a good ol’ enemies turned to lovers dynamic, you’ll get a real kick out of this book.
This story features the slightly cliché “nobody is what they seem” trope, which I expected as soon as I picked up the book, but Black executes it in a satisfying matter—when Black reveals the interiors of characters that we think we know and understand, these twists deepen and complicate an exploration of morality within a world that is anything but black and white. Black also explores the complexities of abuse in way that is simultaneously compassionate and unwilling to absolve abusers of their crimes.
One of my favorite aspects of Holly Black’s writing is that she tries to create a diverse cast of characters—we find that Jude’s sister Vivi, who is bisexual, has a human girlfriend, which is a total nonissue to the fae. I do hope that one day Holly Black, and other popular YA authors, will start writing these amazing fantasy stories with LGBT characters as the protagonists, but I’m still happy to see progress being made.
For long-time fans of Holly Black, you’ll find some extra enjoyment in a few character cameos that reveal that this book is set in the same world as the Modern Faerie Tales and The Darkest Part of the Forest. The Barnes & Noble version features an extra story with some old, favorite friends. It's definitely worth it.
I’m super pumped to read the next books in this series, and I’d recommend this book to readers who enjoy court intrigue, magic, great world building, juxtaposition of beauty and violence, and a female protagonist who could kill me (and I’d gladly let her, if we're being honest here). There are lots of great lines in this book, so I’ll end on two of my favorites:
“We don't need to be good. But let's try to be fair.”
“I stand in front of my window and imagine myself a fearless knight, imagine myself a witch who hid her heart in her finger and then chopped her finger off.”
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on January 2, 2018. It is available in hardcover for $18.99.
What's your favorite book that explores morality from interesting, compelling angles? Do you think that authors have a responsibility to create more diverse protagonists, or do you think it's enough to have diverse minor characters?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.